Issues conference

$5k to $15k
estimated cost of external help
  • Scan and research
  • Explore options
  • Consult
  • Deliberate
0-2 weeks
estimated run time
3-5 weeks
estimated lead time
Strong communicator
recommended experience
An issues conference allows a group of representative individuals to explore and draw conclusions about a topic. It typically runs over one day, commencing with more-information-based sessions in the morning before switching to a format of deliberation or ideation in the afternoon.

The agenda might be predetermined or it can be influenced by the interests of attendees. It is similar to the unconference format but usually involves a goal or outcome the convener wishes to achieve.

In 5 steps...

  1. Determine who should attend and how you will select and invite them. Decide on the outcome you need from the event and how this will contribute to your process. Do you want the conference to produce prioritised options, for example? Or an analysis of a range of options? Perhaps new ideas, or a risk analysis? Use your outcome to determine what needs to be communicated in the first half of the day, and the format of the afternoon sessions.
  2. Determine and invite appropriate speakers who can talk with authority about the subject matter and set the tone for the day.
  3. Start the day by setting expectations and providing information and panel talks on a range of themes that relate to your topic. Ensure each explores and opens up the topic, rather than telling participants what they should think.
  4. For the second half of the day, plan events that allow participants to break into small groups to analyse specific aspects of the problem that get you closer to your outcome. You can ask participants to self-select for these sessions, allowing them to indicate where they feel they have the most to contribute; for example, ‘How this policy might affect young people’. Have a scribe record the key information in each session.
  5. Allow ample time to bring everyone back together at the end of the day (or between sessions, if you prefer) to talk about what they discussed, what they learnt, and any ideas or solutions they came up with.

When to use it

An issues conference works well in the exploration and prioritisation processes, particularly when focused on a local group or issue. It can help you get a focused discussion on a wide range of aspects of an issue in a short space of time.


  • Ability to explore issues or ideas in detail.
  • Enables participants to talk about the things that matter most to them.
  • Quickly provides an indication of issues that might be ‘noisy’ but which the majority aren’t really interested in.
  • Builds trust and relationships between participants.
Long term
  • Kickstarts local momentum for an issue if ongoing involvement is desirable.
  • Better-aligned solutions and language.
  • Increased levels of support and enthusiasm for the project.


  • If the focus of the conference isn’t clear enough, you might not get the information or outputs you’re seeking.
  • If the next steps aren’t clear or the input isn’t well captured, participants may become disillusioned with the process afterwards.



  • Find a time and location for the event that is appropriate for the audience.
  • Source participants – use local advertising or invite selected experts, and enable them to invite others.
  • Do a site visit and make sure you’ll have adequate space for the breakout sessions, while also having a space where the whole group can gather to start and later wrap the day.

During the process

  • Ensure participants understand the ‘rules’ of the day and feel confident in contributing to each session.
  • Have enough staff so that they can circulate and participate in most breakout sessions. It may be appropriate for your team to act as scribes for the sessions, to make sure that you get the most out of the event.
  • Get everyone together at the end of the day to share the things they learnt and what your next steps are, so participants leave feeling like they have had great conversations and have meaningfully contributed.


  • Follow up with participants by sending them any documents or write-ups that have resulted from the events, and telling them how they can stay involved.

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